Alienation is a cruel experience because it removes from a child or young person the opportunity to engage with all of the aspects of people who love them in ways that enable them to accept that people can do good and bad things. It causes children and young people to adopt coping mechanisms of cutting out or running off, of avoidance of conflict and of heightened self righteousness in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the brain of the child, the critical firing of neurons and synapses fails to take place and the opportunity to build conflict resolution skills, perspective and a strong sense of self is lost. The false self which emerges through the missing years when a child is alienated is a ghost like persona, fragile and uncertain, masking fears and anxieties and a sense of self which is both over inflated and crumbling all at the same time. What happens to children and young people who are pushed into an alienation reaction is that so much more is lost than the relationship with a once loved parent. That is why prevention of this harm done to children is so essential, those missing years steal more than love from a parent, they steal the very chance a child has to build a normal and secure sense of self.
I work with children who are being alienated, who are alienated and who are struggling to recover from alienation. I meet them almost daily in my work and I understand that what they are experiencing is a complex trauma which is deeply hidden from the outside world. So well hidden in fact that most of the children I work with do not know it is there and most of them would tell me and anyone else who asks them that they do not need help thank you very much, apart from help in removing the target of their hatred from their lives. Work in such circumstances is counter intuitive, it is against the grain of what we are taught in our society and what we believe about children. A child’s decision to eradicate a parent is often accepted on the basis that the parent must have done something bad or that the child needs to be protected from conflict. If we only knew what we were condemning children to when we allow this to happen, many more of us would work harder, strive longer and find more creative ways of keeping children engaged with the parent they have ‘chosen’ to be rid of in their lives.
There is increasing evidence which demonstrates that the underlying problems which arise as a result of rejecting a parent, leaves the child carrying a burden which grows heavier as they get older. Children who are allowed to reject a parent and pretend that the parent no longer exists, fail to learn many soft skills that are essential in life if one is to navigate the relational world successfully. Children who have been alienated grow up believing that only their perspective on the world is the true reality and that avoiding people who do not share their world view is a normal way to behave. As young people grow, those missing years of relationship with a parent means that they do not have the opportunity to learn that parents are people who provide boundaries and they miss the chance to respond normally to the differences which are eventually expressed between parents and their children on the road through to adulthood. This is why alienated children will eventually struggle. The vital relationships with provide them with the opportunity for healthy brain development which in turn gives them sound relational skills and capacity have been cut out of their lives. If only those working with families in these circumstances knew the extent of the damage being inflicted when a child’s ‘decision’ to reject a parent after separation is being upheld.
Recovery from being alienated is about being able to learn that people can behave in ways which are good and bad and that those behaviours do not need to trigger a defence mechanism of believing that bad behaviour means a person is wholly bad. This is an extraordinary task to achieve if the capacity of the brain is limited because a person has been using the coping mechanism of psychological splitting. There is evidence that people with personality disorders for example, do not have a well developed corpus callosum. This is a bridge which divides the two hemispheres of the brain and which is made up of a bundle of fibres which enable communication between the two sides of the brain. A well developed bridge assists with a balanced use of the brain, in studies however, people with borderline personality disorder are seen as having a less developed corpus callosum, as are those with high conflict personalities who lack the relational skills to see other people’s perspectives.
All of this evidence is convincing us at the Family Separation Clinic that what we see in children and young people who are attempting to reject or resist contact with a parent after separation are behaviours which will, if they are upheld, lead to longer term problems for the children concerned. Problems which will not be readily resolved because the missing years of that parental relationship and the lack of resolution of the child’s efforts to utilise a coping mechanism which is harmful, leads to a lasting gap in the child’s capacity to achieve positive and healthy brain function. Fortunately we also know that about the plasticity of the brain and its capacity to continue to grow and change. Which means that whilst those missing years can never be regained, there is a possibility for repair and recovery should the young person be enabled to resolve the splitting which prevents reconnection to the lost loved one.
Missing years, missing knowledge, missing opportunities to prevent harm being done to children in the critical years of their lives. Isn’t it time that someone noticed that the gap which opens up between parents after separation causes children to have to deal with something more than conflict?
This is another Huffington Post Blog for W/C February 15 2016